WASHINGTON — The federal government should minimize policy changes in the telecommunications industry and let competition and marketplace forces shape the future of the field, a top Justice Department antitrust official says.
Charles F. Rule, deputy assistant attorney general in the agency's antitrust division, said in a recent interview that any new intervention in the rapidly changing telephone industry should be restricted only to cases of market failure or the need to regulate a natural monopoly.
"You want market forces and competition to determine whether or not it makes sense for there to be five, 10 or 15 competitors, not some government policy," Rule said.
Rule's comments reflect the basic tenor of the Justice Department's antitrust policy in recent years, which has shied away from regulation in favor of the free flow of market forces. They also match opinions expressed in Los Angeles on Tuesday by Charles L. Brown, AT&T's chairman, who said AT&T still suffers from excessive regulation.
Still, several of its rivals have charged that AT&T retains its monopoly on long-distance service, and they have asked the Federal Communications Commission for relief--including a request to slow the removal of curbs on AT&T's ability to offer more flexible rates and new services.
While conceding that AT&T's competitors may have some valid points, Rule said the mere fact that AT&T retains a large share of the long-distance market is no justification for its continued regulation.
"How much sense does it make to continue to regulate AT&T now that AT&T is, at least by definition, in an industry that is not characterized by a natural monopoly?" he asked.
Rule also said that this month represents "a milestone" in the transition to "equal access," under which all long-distance companies can provide service allowing customers to dial "1" plus the area code and local number. All of the local Bell telephone companies met the schedule to have one-third of their phone lines converted by this month to provide equal access for all long-distance companies, he said.
Rule also said he believes that consumers' confusion regarding all of the recent changes in the telephone industry "appears to have lessened."
"I think over time that people will begin to realize the benefit in terms of additional services and prices closer to cost," he said. "People forget that it used to be quite an event to call their aunt or grandmother across the country. Now, you just do it without giving it too much thought."